Book 40: Last Order omnibus 2

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order omnibus vol. 2 by Yukito Kishiro (B)

When I read the first omnibus for this continuation of the series I commented on how the story expanded its scope dramatically when Alita got to outer space, looking at the various offshoots of humanity more than Alita herself. Omnibus two brings the spotlight back to Alita, which is a plus, and the fact that she’s one insignificant figure in a much larger universe (something Kishiro doesn’t let us forget) doesn’t hinder the series as we now have the first stirrings of Alita recovering her past memories and coming to understand how she came to the wasteland.

But Kishiro is going to take the long route to that end. Bringing focus to the story, he’s pushed Alita into a grand fighting tournament that is supposed to be cover for Alita’s ally to find her friend’s brain (her personal goal at the start of all this). And that’s what most of this volume is taken up with: distracted from her brain-hunt temporarily, while trying (ultimately futilely, she knows) to protect children being used in live-fire training exercises Alita learns of the tournament and decides to enter.

And most of the volume is then dedicated to Alita qualifying and making it through round one, with time to establish her first round opponents as humanitarians trying to find sanctuary for a number of orphans. Also vampires exist.

The fights themselves are a mix of anime-style, over-the-top martial arts (justifiable here, as fighters are enhanced by the incorporation of cybernetics) and quasi-Eastern spiritualism where the real battle is less about physical strength and talent and more about inner spiritual growth (for Alita, at least).

You know what I’m talking about. Those times in anime series or maybe a live-action martial arts film where a character needs to find inner peace or other spiritual enlightenment in order to evolve physically and be able to pull off some impossible move or conquer an intimidating foe.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this idea of mysticism as a tool for depicting personal growth in a character. It’s not the presence of the supernatural that bothers me, but how the character is always aware they’re growing stronger or overcoming some personal demon as it’s happening. It’s not terribly realistic, a person knowing they’re maturing or growing.

Anyway, I can accept the connection here because Alita was a warrior in her past life and she’s taken on that role again as Alita. Improving as a fighter and overcoming physical obstacles brings her closer to her ‘true self,’ or at least her past life. The question of whether who she is now is anything like who she was, or would want to be, hangs over this story.

I suppose I could criticize Kishiro for dragging this out. Omnibus 2 ends with round two of the tournament in progress, and he seems intent on giving every round of adversaries a backstory or unique style, each fight drawn out in multi-chapter battles. It’s well-done for what it is, and as long as Alita’s revelations are connected to it I’m fine with it. I do question if the brain-hunt is going to mean anything; it’s a quixotic goal, an objective just for the sake of being an objective and it doesn’t matter as long as the tournament is going on. That’s a more interesting story.

Not looking forward to Episode VII

Is it wrong to be pessimistic about Episode VII this early? There’s nothing known about it, other than that Han, Luke and Leia will appear, but there are details outside the movie itself that are relevant. Specifically the fact that Disney spent billions to buy this franchise, and they’re not about to take any real risks with this brand, now are they?

Oh, there will be some surprises, I’m sure. But they’ll each be carefully constructed and run through several committees, any possibility that the audience will be put off or disappointed accounted for and mitigated.

I don’t fear this new trilogy will be bad, but bland. Bad would at least be interesting. Look at the prequels; they weren’t good, but they were fascinating in their badness. George Lucas had a vision, he was making the movies because he had a story he wanted to tell, and through that the prequels were given character.

But these movies? They exist to promote a brand, to maintain and expand the pop culture footprint of the movies and expanded universe, not because someone has a story they want to tell. Sure, they might be entertaining, but above all they’re going to be safe. The various corporate executives overseeing these movies are going to be keeping a close eye, making sure nothing endangers the billions invested in acquiring Lucasfilm. “What did people enjoy about the Original Trilogy? We’ll give them more of that.”

I have similar thoughts about how the first two books of Legend of Korra have played out, but that’ll be a different post.

Maleficent

My interest in Maleficent was muted by the idea of ‘rehabilitating’ a villain by presenting their side, the idea that a bad guy is only bad because they suffered in some way and hey, if you know the real story they’re not really that bad so it’s OK that we’ll put her on a bunch of merchandise and in our commercials and introduce a Disney Infinity figure of her.

This is not a new thing. I can remember when I was a kid there was a book in the library telling the story of the Three Little Pigs from the wolf’s perspective, explaining that he wasn’t really evil, just suffering from allergies. And isn’t that so clever, that we can change an established story and reverse the hero/villain roles?

So I didn’t rush to see the movie, and frankly my life would not have been missing anything if I hadn’t seen this. It’s good, not spectacular in any way, justifying its existence by the sincerity of Jolie and Copley as the leads, the darkness of the date rape analogy of Maleficent’s backstory and the massive shift from the source material in acts 2 and 3. That is what interested me more than ‘Maleficent loses her wings in a not-subtle reference to date rape,’ though yes the feminist streak added to Maleficent’s character made her an anti-hero worth cheering for.

See, the original Sleeping Beauty (the Disney animated movie and, presumably, the original fairy tale) has a MAJOR plot hole in the form of a 16-year gap where nothing happens. Maleficent lays the curse, then scuttles off to wait for Aurora to grow up and fulfill the curse. What is she doing during this time? Well, the animated movie has a scene where Maleficent is asking her underlings why they haven’t found Aurora yet (answer: they’re still looking for a baby, 16 years later), but even if she had found her what was her plan? She couldn’t do anything to Aurora, otherwise her curse is moot.

The live-action movie hurdles this question by having her find baby Aurora pretty quick, which is a good thing because the three good fairies here are absolutely stupid and completely unqualified for child-rearing. (The Three Stooges comedy routine of the fairies could have been excised, to the advantage of the movie.) So it’s up to Maleficent to covertly raise/protect Aurora, and in the process she ends up getting too close to her, opening up about her past (sparing the specific details) and growing fond of the girl/teen.

This leads into Act 3, where Maleficent’s curse plays itself out heedless of her changed desires, and we get one subversion of the Sleeping Beauty myth after another for a climax that ranks alongside Frozen as a ‘take that’ to classic fairy tale naivete while at the same time substituting a more genuine and satisfying solution that keeps at bay the ‘cynical satire with a forced happy ending’ finale of Shrek and its ilk. This movie isn’t trying to be smarter than its fairy tale roots, it’s just trying to bring the material into the modern era and for a smarter audience.

Does it work? At times. Jolie is the lynchpin of this movie, pitch perfect casting in the same mold as Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in those other Disney live-action movies. Without her making the character a living being I wouldn’t have bought her character arc, but that doesn’t mean the script does quite so well bringing her to her redemption. The bonding between Aurora and Maleficent is mostly one-sided, Aurora impressed by her ‘fairy godmother’ and Maleficent more or less acting nicer without seeming to be defrosting. Using the 16-year gap as an opening to take the story in a new direction was inspired, but after making that decision that screenplay starts to phone it in.

And then there’s the rest of the movie surrounding this twist. I said weeks ago the trailers left me a bit cold, all the shots of CGI-creatures and a giant wall of thorny bramble uninspired. I’m not impressed you can make these things, animators. Computers can do anything.

What the animators or director or whomever forgot when designing the fairy land side of the movie’s setting was ‘character.’ There’s creatures wandering around the enchanted moors Maleficent comes from, but they’re all pretty generic. As if someone found public domain fantasy figures and then cut-and-paste. For a fantasy setting there’s little that feels fantastic apart from Maleficent. Yes, it’s her story, but her story starts with and springs from her connection to the fairy realm next to the human realm. A little better world-building would have done wonders.

Books 34-39: BFI Film/Modern Classics

Groundhog Day by Ryan Gilbey

Night of the Living Dead by Ben Hervey

Spirited Away by Andrew Osmond

Greed by Johnathan Rosenbaum

Vertigo by Charles Barr

Gun Crazy by Jim Kitses (no grade)

(Stupid Tumblr formatting)

I’m not going to write an actual review of these books. These books are critical analyses of films, and a review of an analysis would be some Inception-level shit I’m not ready to get into.

Just let it be said that the BFI Film/Modern Classics series is like a wet-dream for cinephiles. Each book is short, less than 100 pages (less so with all the images included), but they are just packed with behind-the-scenes details, commentary, criticism and analysis. Any one is worth the money.

Books 26-33: Girl Genius

Girl Genius vol. 1-8 by Phil and Kaja Foglio et al (A-)

 

I first read through the archives of Girl Genius a few years ago, and my experience was mixed. I recognized the artistic talent and the well-developed world of the series (even from the start the panels are packed with fine details), but I wasn’t quite drawn into the story. Perhaps it’s because the idea of this world isn’t entirely laid out at the beginning and I had to fill in the gaps of my understanding as I went along.

On that note, the plot: it’s circa the Industrial Revolution, except in this world there is a breed of people called Sparks, prone to scientific acumen and flights of cartoonish madness. Prior to the series Europa had been devastated by wars and the negative influences of Sparks before Baron Wulfenbach instilled order (not entirely politely). Most famous among Sparks is the clan Heterodyne and a pair of them (apparently the only two good ones in the family’s long history) referred to as the Heterodyne Boys. But they’ve been missing for years.

This information is crucial as the story quickly goes from the introduction of the main character – Agatha Clay, a university student who tries hard but has trouble concentrating and meets constant failure in her projects – to expanding its focus wider. Not that this is a spoiler (the cover of the first volume gives it away), but Agatha is the daughter of one of the Heterodyne Boys and is actually a very powerful Spark in her own right. It’s just that a locket she always wears was designed to hamper her ability and her true nature because, as quickly develops when the truth is discovered, her existence is enough to throw off the relative peace of the continent and bring out several would be rulers, each attempting to dethrone Baron Wulfenbach, take control of Agatha, or take control of the Heterodyne’s base of operations, Mechanicsburg. Or all three.

The first few volumes, which feature Agatha being taken from her university to Castle Wulfenbach (a giant airship), escaping from the airship and falling in with a traveling theater troupe, are very good at not overwhelming the reader with too much technobabble, backstory or characters. However, it does go a little far in the opposite direction, as necessary exposition such as who the Heterodyne Boys were or what the power structure of Europa is are common knowledge for the characters, so there’s no ‘As you know…’ exposition. It all has to be gleaned as the story progresses, but as Agatha’s story unfolds we pick up more characters and more plot threads dedicated to just her story, competing for the reader’s attention with a backstory that is still being doled out piecemeal. Volumes two and three, with Agatha on the airship not doing much of anything, would have been the best time for some exposition. Here’s a provincial young lady, suddenly uprooted and taken to where a bunch of political and military leaders are seated, and she meets a group of people her age who are more familiar with the larger world, able to fill her in on details that will become important as she discovers her true nature.

Instead there’s a superfluous rivalry with another girl and a bit of wheel-spinning with Agatha pretending to be the assistant of a fake Spark. Nothing that really matters to the story at large, and which isn’t fully justified as character development for Agatha.

The traveling circus section is kind of similar. Agatha does grow more into herself, becoming more adept as a Spark; but again, the true stakes of what Agatha’s existence means are more left unsaid. All we’re really told is she needs to be kept hidden, and that others would try to use her. But specifics about who would try to use her aren’t given until we actually meet one of them, the Storm King.

(Know what would have really helped? A map, highlighting the various cities and provinces and who’s in charge. I don’t recall seeing one.)

And at that point the various conspiracies and schemes start piling up and things just get convoluted. Like, really convoluted, the Storm King’s plot vomiting up tons of backstabbing and double-crossing and unexplained twists and the “return” of a character who might have been dead before the start of the series only we don’t know for sure and we don’t know what their actual plan is and what the hell is all this?

And the Storm King part isn’t even fully resolved, it’s just that several threads are pinned down for the time being. We know they’ll come back later (they must), but there’s still no explanation for certain things that have happened. We’re just told “It doesn’t matter right now, onto the next chapter of the saga.” Which is Agatha and company reaching Mechanicsburg and Castle Heterodyne, a sentient structure that has been destroyed and splintered mentally for a couple decades. (Baron Wulfenbach has been sending people to fix it, guided by the castle itself, but it’s more a form of punishment than anything.) Agatha arrives so she can be verified as the Heterodyne heir and then… This is left hanging, in a ‘one thing at a time’ manner. Agatha’s main objective is to prove herself the heir and get the castle operational so she’ll have a better position than ‘Run and hide from those who would use me.’

Because the existence of a Heterodyne heir has become public knowledge now, and with the Storm King plot ending with Baron Wulfenbach gravely injured things are coming apart at the seams, Mechanicsburg the stage for a number of would-be rulers and mad scientists vying for control. It just adds to the confusion, which really overwhelmed me when I was first reading this.

Rereading it now, I’m able to keep track of everything better (it’s easy to flip back in a book than online, of course, plus the overall experience of reading a book straight through is better than waiting for each new page to upload), and I have actual knowledge of things like the Heterodyne Boys and the Jagers this time. But there’s a still a frustrating undercurrent of the stakes not being entirely laid out. We only get a general idea of what’s happening militarily or politically; none of the people who come to Mechanicsburg attempting to kill Wulfenbach or conquer the city are fleshed out. They’re interchangeable, the series more interested in throwing out silly mechanical or biological creatures than in laying out who the major players are.

Who is it Agatha is supposed to be opposing, or defending herself against? Are these would-be usurpers meant to matter, or are they just a distraction to keep Agatha and Wulfenbach apart until the appropriate time?

I don’t mean to say this is a glaring flaw of the series. I suppose I’d prefer a little mystery to mountains of exposition, but the feel of the Castle Wulfenbach sequence (to the end of volume 8, at least) is breathless to the point of chaotic. It’s always easy to understand the immediate threats to the characters, the series works as a serial with the characters moving from one incident to another, but it’s the larger picture I want a handle on. Who matters, not as characters in the story but as players in the grand scheme of things? When volume 8 ends with the return of a character from earlier in the series it doesn’t pack much of a punch, because they were first presented as little more than one quirky character in a collection of them.

And I think that’s sort of the modus operandi of the series: quirk over substance. Not that the series is shallow, but there’s very much a prevailing mindset of “Throw in whatever’s cool or neat” at play. But I’m giving these books a high grade because, as opposed to other ‘Rule of cool’ works like Dr. McNinja, there isn’t a sense the writers are trying too hard. The story doesn’t reach the level of complexity or breadth of something like Order of the Stick, but it’s not frivolous either. The parts are nice, but the whole is not something more than the sum.

Book 25: Woman in the Dark

Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammett (C-)

When I came across this in one of my foot lockers I couldn’t remember if I had actually read it yet. It was just a couple pages into it that I remembered I had; I just couldn’t recall anything about the story because there really is nothing to the story here.

I don’t say that as a total criticism. Yes, the plot is paper-thin and too much of the text is taken up with dialogue that makes a lot of noise but says little. But what there is is less angering for being nothing, and more intriguing for what it could be.

The story: Luise, a failed singer who has been kept by a wealthy man named Robson, has left him, ending up at an isolated house occupied by a taciturn man named Brazil. While she’s being treated for a sprained ankle Robson and his muscle come by. She refuses to go with them, but they return later, drunker than before. A scuffle ensues, Brazil knocking the muscle on his ass.

Unfortunately, the muscle bangs his head and Brazil is called later, informed he’s in critical condition and Robson is pressing charges. Brazil, a former convict who fears being imprisoned again, hightails it to the city with Luise in tow, hiding out with a couple Brazil knows.

Shortly after they arrive the cops come; Brazil jumps out the window but is shot at moments later, and Luise is taken into custody. The cops detain her for a couple hours, then drive her back to the town she and Brazil had left. After meeting with a lawyer Luise learns Brazil has been found at a hospital and Robson knows. She agrees to return to him if Brazil is let free.

The muscle comes out of his coma, Brazil arrives at the house, and they stop Robson from killing the muscle, who then says Robson hit him outside Brazil’s house.

And that’s it. Even with a few conversations contributing a little to the characters but nothing to the plot, the thing reads fast and feels vaporous. I reread the entire thing in just an hour or so yesterday, and while specific scenes stand out fresher in mind after doing so there’s nothing much to hold onto. There’s no standout attributes to the characters, no memorable dialogue, no real action.

I said it’s intriguing what this could be; while reading it I imagined in my mind a film noir using this barebones plot, taking advantage of the empty space between the scenes to let the characters breathe and come to life. Something more character-driven than heavily atmospheric or sensationalist. Turns out there is an early-30’s movie adaptation, preceding the proper noir era. Can’t really say I’m interested in checking it out.

Should I grade on a curve considering its brevity? Should I say ‘It’s short, so what am I expecting?’ It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just neutral. Forgettable, in a generic way.

Book 24: Diamond Age

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (A-)

First and foremost I have to say that I have a profound appreciation that this book exists. That may seem a bit silly to say (it does to me), but that is what I genuinely feel. I appreciate how this book raises a number of ideas about technology and culture and education and child-rearing, how they interact and affect one another, and it does so without any implication that Stephenson believes there is a singular point to express. There are dialogues here, but no speeches, no “This is what the author believes” bits. The ideas and questions raised are large, perhaps too large to ever be definitively answered, and Stephenson never acts as if he has special wisdom or insight. (Unless I really missed the point.)

He is not wholly detached; there are many moments throughout where it is clear he has a view of right and wrong, proper and improper. But there is also an undercurrent that gives the impression he is like a scientist considering a specimen in a jar. Perhaps that is the best way to approach these ideas, letting the world and the characters loose to play out as they will, as they must. The continued existence of haves and have-nots, and the apparent inevitability of violent reaction between two conflicting ideologies or cultures, do not come across as Stephenson saying ‘This is right’ but ‘This is how things are.’

This is a book filled with interlocking ideas building up a grand question of what guides personal and cultural development, inviting the reader to think about these issues without any handholding or attempting to lead them to a certain conclusion. And I love that such a book exists. There’s no shortage of stories in any medium attempting to convey or reinforce a certain belief, a certain way of looking at the world, but how many trust the audience to consider a question that may not have an answer?

The story: nanotechnology has become so ubiquitous that even the poorest houses have matter compilers (though other things like physical space and access to handmade goods are still prone to the issue of scarcity and supply/demand, as is access to the raw materials used by the compilers), with this (and other technological advances) leading to the dissolution of traditional nations in favor of enclaves (phyles) built around a shared culture (the dominant ones being nostalgia-driven, like the Victorian England-style ‘New Atlantis’).

(And here I’ll sidetrack to say that the first great decision about this book, something so many lesser writers would no doubt get wrong, is in making the nanotechnology commonplace before the story begins. ‘The question is not what it can do, but how it should be used,’ or however the line goes. Not only does Stephenson sail right over any blatant anti-science fearmongering like the grey goo scenario, but it frees him to look at the real ramifications of technological progress. There’s no ‘Science is going too far,’ no ‘We must keep the genie in the bottle’ sensationalism, no ‘We’re on the brink of something radical.’ It’s like a look at life in a world threatened by Mutually Assured Destruction: not as flashy as a story involving an actual nuclear apocalypse, but much more thoughtful and realistic.)

Believing that some cultures are inherently superior to others, and recognizing the importance of education (and the kind of education imparted) to maintaining the existence and robustness of any culture, a high-ranking member of New Atlantis commissions the creation of a Primer designed to teach and develop its owner into someone with the skills and knowledge necessary to be a well-rounded, contributing member of society. Not just education by rote, but a personal relationship with the child that also teaches lessons about what a person should be like in addition to what someone should know.

Through a series of events the first copy of the Primer falls into the hands of Nell, a poor girl not affiliated with any specific phyle. Under the book’s influence (her lessons framed as a fantasy story of increasing depth as she grows and learns) she learns self-defense, computing, etiquette, cooking, and various other skills. Other copies of the Primer find their way to the commissioner’s granddaughter (the intended recipient), the daughter of the Primer’s programmer, and a few thousand abandoned Chinese girls cared for by a criminal overlord. The focus of the story shifts between several characters, but this is mainly Nell’s story, and how the other girls are influenced by the Primer is underexplored.

As we follow Nell from toddlerhood to adulthood we also see how the invention of the Primer itself affects several players involved in its creation (primarily the programmer) or people who are drawn into Nell’s life (or, more accurately, have Nell drawn into theirs, as she is a minor and teenager for most of the book and of limited autonomy), and there is a looming plot thread of the Feed (the system of nanotechnology and matter compilers, whose material source is controlled by Western phyles) being challenged by a speculative technology referred to as the Seed, an open-source form of material creation that would eliminate the still-present concentration of wealth in a few hands. This last thread comes to a head as a violent uprising of native Chinese against the various Western/foreign phyles in the book’s setting of Shanghai (and precipitates Nell’s stepping up to her destiny).

Diamond Age weaves through these different stories a bit more seamlessly than Snow Crash; even though both books contain a surfeit of world-building details and bits that don’t matter to the plot or themes at large but which amused Stephenson enough to be included, there’s fewer times when the plot feels like it’s come to an halt so Stephenson can go on a tangent.

At the same time, I’m shaving points off because the dominant phyles are just cultural throwbacks, in a sense, deliberately mining and mimicking the past to inform present etiquette and social structure. Because I’m leery of the ‘paradise lost’ myth and excessive nostalgia I would have liked at least some explanation/examination of why multiple generations would go along with (for lack of a better term) resurrecting cultural norms and standards of yesteryear. I really would have preferred a group of radically new and unique phyles, perhaps a melting pot or two combining dominant elements of recognizable cultures or civilizations but adapted to this new world. Maybe combine, say, the independent streak associated with the American cowboy with the overwhelming dedication to one’s work of the Japanese salaryman, praising both a distinct streak of self-determination and being a loyal office drone.

I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here. And yeah, there are references to phyles that look to the future rather than the past, though they’re not in the spotlight. I can understand the idea of people wanting to bring back the rules of etiquette and propriety from a certain time and place (Victorian Britain, in this case), but why would an allegiance to that one culture and only that one culture last past a single generation (if that long)? Why wouldn’t the arts, humanities or philosophies of other cultures bleed into New Atlantis?

Then again… country music is like a self-perpetuating phyle, the music and personas of its stars carefully tailored to reinforce certain views and the belief in the superiority of particular classes of people, pasttimes, etc. In other words, country music teaches and reteaches the superiority of small town living, Christianity, farm work, big trucks, beer, and other signifiers of the Country ‘brand.’ I guess I can see New Atlantis instilling a devotion to the complete package, a view that it’s all related.

I’m digressing… Do I have anything else to say about the book?

It has an *excellent* depiction of a young child’s thoughts and understanding of the world, and Nell’s growth and maturity into adulthood is pretty much flawless. The fantasy parts of the story, the Primer’s lessons to young Nell being relayed in a story that mirrors and predicts Nell’s real life, could have been a weakpoint in this story, being little more than broadstrokes of the fantasy/fairy tale genre (wicked stepmother, commoner who finds out she’s a princess, magic animals) without true craft. A mimicry, an invocation of what a general audiences associates with the genre. But Stephenson gives his own flourish here, utilizing the archetypes while also making it his own.

And I find it interesting how certain characters are built up to be crucial to the story but then disappear when their job is done. Judge Fang in particular; his concept of Confucianism and how he changes his life after his encounters with Dr. X would have made for an interesting entrypoint to discussions of the theme of culture, education and upbringing.

I was also genuinely surprised by how certain events played out. Another story would have made the first copy of the Primer a McGuffin, something the bad guys want and Nell has to not only hide it but learn from it so she can fight back against them in time. But no. When the man who commissioned the creation of the Primer finds out Nell has the book, he not only takes no action to steal it from her (another copy had been made already, so it’s not like this is a ‘there’s only one’ situation) but he indirectly helps her at a couple crucial times in her life, ensuring she is able to get the most out of the opportunity the Primer presents to her.

Like I said, I appreciate that such a work exists, challenging me and drawing me in so strongly. I won’t pretend I ‘got’ all of it in one reading, but everything that’s there intrigued me.

Books 21-23: Volume ones

Starman vol. 1: Sins of the Father by James Robinson and Tony Harris (B)
Daredevil vol. 1: The Devil, Inside and Out by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark (A-)
Kabuki vol. 1: Circle of Blood by David Mack (B+)


So… I feel a bit silly for not already knowing Starman is a legacy character when I’m sure I’ve seen the original here or there. But the series (the first volume, at least) doesn’t require any knowledge of the original character other than ‘This guy was a superhero and now his son has taken up the mantle.’

The fact that part can be covered so quickly allows for the focus to be spent on the characters themselves, specifically the father/son interaction between Ted Knight and Jack Knight. Robinson does well expressing that the tension between them – Jack doesn’t want his father’s legacy and takes it up reluclantly, Ted doesn’t believe Jack has what it takes (though there’s some reverse-psychology there) – is long-standing, but he’s a bit quick in covering it. It comes across a little too by-the-numbers. (Praise should also be given to the conflicted relationship between Jack and his brother, easily as human and deep as anything depicted in the tights-and-cape genre.)

Maybe in future issues their relationship will be examined further; the first storyline (the Mist, an enemy of the original Starman, carries out a massively coordinated revenge plot against him and his family) not only forces Jack into the role but keeps things moving so fast that there isn’t time for true reflection. It grabs your attention, but this does have the same problem that we’re not given much backstory about the villain or his particular beef with the original Starman, and the fight between Jack and Mist’s son is given a pat resolution where a more developed thematic payoff to the idea of strife being passed down the generations was expected. (In fact, the Mist’s entire plot is just ended rather more than resolved, though I assume his daughter will turn up later to become one of Jack’s enemies.)

As far as setting up the characters and idea of Jack taking on the Starman title goes this volume is good; it certainly has me interested to read more, for the characters rather than the story. I understand the problems of origin stories, and it’s not like I have an idea how the Mist’s scheme and Jack taking up the mantle could have been better balanced.

***

Volume “1” of Daredevil has the advantage of avoiding all the origin story/reintroduce the character stuff. It’s the start of Ed Brubaker’s run on the character, but it comes after 13 other volumes, most by Brian Michael Bendis (I’ll have to go back and check out his run sooner or later) and we start in the unique place of Matt Murdock (Daredevil’s alter ego) being in prison for being Daredevil. While another Daredevil is still patrolling Hell’s Kitchen.

No origin, no lengthy recap, just a scene of Daredevil fighting some criminals and cut to Matt Murdock sitting in Ryker’s. Hell of a way to jump into a series, I’ll admit.

If there’s any great flaw to this story it’s that Brubaker goes a little too ‘kitchen sink’:

Putting Daredevil in prison? Sure, sounds interesting.
Putting him in the same prison as Kingpin? But of course! There’s the most dramatic potential there.
Putting him in the same prison as some other villians like Owl and Hammerhead? OK. Makes sense; they’re not, like, A-list villains (what would the classification system be here?) with really dangerous superpowers. Putting them in a general-population prison is plausible. Plus it allows for more drama and underlines just how isolated and penned in Daredevil is, how dangerous this situation is for him.
Bringing Bullseye to Ryker’s? Uhhh…. He’s an infamous assassin, deadly with any weapon or even without one. Why wouldn’t he be in one of the max-security facilities built for actual superpowered villains? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have SHIELD agents guarding him rather than regular prison officers?
Punisher getting himself arrested so he can get close to Daredevil and ask him what the hell he’s doing? No. Just too ridiculous. It’s not that I can’t accept Punisher being anything but a one-note character, but his inclusion doesn’t add enough to the story to justify the decision and when you have so many other characters bouncing around the story the space he takes up stands out.

And that’s just the ‘in prison’ stuff. Outside we have the fake-Daredevil, Foggy Nelson is trying to get Murdock out of jail and Ben Urich is grappling with his personal and professional obligations covering Murdock’s arrest AND begins looking into the fake-Daredevil story.

Aside from Bullseye and Punisher being altogether superfluous, none of the pacing or plot in this volume is hindered by how much is going on or how many characters are involved. Brubaker mines the ‘Daredevil in prison’ idea just enough to deliver a strong opening act that builds momentum for future volumes with several unanswered questions not just for the plot (the reveal of who fake-Daredevil is satisfies on one level (it makes sense and doesn’t require any lengthy explanation of how they mimicked him) but there’s still the question of who put him up to it) but for where the series will go from here.

A break from the established ‘normal’ canon (Daredevil fights crime in Hell’s Kitchen while working as a lawyer in his civilian identity) may be a weird place to jump into a series, but damn if it didn’t grab me.

***

Kabuki ended up having a similar ‘generational strife’ theme to Starman’s first volume, but this is more Shakespearean tragedy than a meta-riff on the nostalgia and collector mentality of the comic industry as what infused Starman with a sensibility more mature than its four-color ancestry.

The story is nominally a cyberpunk’s cyberpunk fantasy, set in a Blade Runner-esque future Japan and involving assassins, organized crime and powerful business conglomerates vying with one another for dominance on the battlefield of media. Even Kabuki and her associates hide in public site as media icons (there’s mention that they are all celebrities, but as Kabuki, the main character, leads a sheltered existence we never get an examination of this). But the actual storyline has little interest in the action or sensationalism the subgenre engenders. The fictional technology on display may not exist but it is nothing as spectacular as, say, advanced AI or neural uplinks cybernetically installed in people; in fact, Kabuki’s weapon of choice is a pair of sickles, farming equipment going back centuries and deliberately invoking the past.

And the plot itself isn’t whip-fast or filled with intrigue and shocking twists. There is one major surprise, but when it happens it comes forth with the same deliberate meditativeness that drives the entire comic. The scenes of violence are rarely more than a page or two, and the details of the yakuza or corporate fighting are given the minimum of attention needed. Instead, most of the story is reflection on past events, memories, and introspection by the main characters. Everything that happens here is the result of decisions made before we joined the story, karma or fate or whatever playing itself out as it must; we are watching the ripples of the pond well after someone threw a rock in.

This realization colors my opinion of the story; like a twist at the end of the movie, only I don’t want to go back and reread this just to look for clues. It’s that only now, when I have the complete picture, can I properly understand everything from the beginning.

On a second reading I might give the book a higher grade, but I feel pretty good with a ‘B+.’ The cyberpunk feel I mentioned before comes across as trite at times; not clichéd, but sort of washed out. The ‘Seinfeld is unfunny’ principle, I would say. But the soulful tone and spiritual musings make this work timeless rather than dated.

Book 20: Zodiac

Zodiac by Neal Stephenson (C-)

Zodiac feels like an airport paperback, a Robert Ludlum or an early John Grisham story, minus the quick pace of the plot and the feeling of any sort of race against time. It undermines the ultimate revelation of the potential ecological devastation of the villains’ scheme to have the story skip weeks or months at a time; as clichéd as the ‘ticking clock’ idea in fiction is (or the ‘have the heroes get attacked every other chapter so they can’t stop and catch their breath’ idea is, it works as a way of ensuring the audience believes the villain’s plan is an imminent threat, or that the hero’s life is in danger. Stephenson avoids that to the story’s loss.

The book involves toxins in Boston’s harbor and surrounding ocean area, with the slowly revealed A-plot being about a corporation using an untested chemical dissolvent that… fuck, it’s only been a week since I finished reading it and already I’ve forgotten the details. Something about the chemical reacting with something else already in the water and posing a risk to all sealife. And the hero wants to expose the company but he’s targeted for threats, character defamation and assassination.

Anyway, the first two acts cover several months and involve unrelated matters that don’t properly come together in the climax. Stephenson’s later books are famous for asides and tangents, but while in Snow Crash this is done to establish the world and how it’s deviated from our own, here it’s mostly padding. Now and then it might reveal something about the protagonist’s character or his way of life, but mostly it feels like Stephenson is calling upon a bunch of real-life stuff he found interesting but couldn’t construct a better narrative around. Even the idea of PCP-manufacturing Satanists feels less ‘Stephenson-weird’ and more ‘Law and Order sensationalist.’ As in ‘We saw a recent news story about this really weird thing so we’re going to write an episode of Law and Order about it.’

Or maybe he just didn’t care about creating a better story. Maybe he felt the slow build-up and several scenes of Taylor going around collecting water samples and trying to track the origin of certain pollutants was more true-to-life, and that trumped any need for sensationalism. Either way, it didn’t work.

I wouldn’t say there’s a good story that could be constructed from among all the parts here, because the basic idea is, as I said, a simple ‘lone hero races to expose giant corporation’ plot that has been done so many times before. Even if Stephenson were to rewrite the story now, when his own voice and style is better developed, I don’t think the story itself would be any better. Maybe the reading experience would be richer because of the tangents.

An observation

Let’s Play videos are founded on the (subjective) appeal of watching other people consume product. It is not about consuming the product oneself, because the viewer is not playing the game, nor is it a true critique or examination of the product, which I would argue requires a post-gameplay analysis separate from the gameplay period much as a film review needs to be written after the critic is done watching the film. (Yes the person playing the game can provide a running commentary, but this would be more stream-of-conscious than a true critical appraisal.)

Is there any other concept like this? People watching one person consume a product to see their in-the-moment reaction? Maybe Twitter livestreams…